Reviewed by Stephen Radosh

It hasn’t yet started to really get warm here in the Coachella Valley but The Desert Rose Playhouse has turned up the heat by presenting Tennessee Williams’ sizzling southern gothic play SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.  Although the film has developed something of a cache, mostly due to its stars Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, the play, written in 1958, never achieved the stature of some of his previous works such as THE GLASS MENAGERIE or A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.  In practical terms, this means there are not as many productions of SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER as the aforementioned plays which is a pity as it is filled with marvelous imagery, subtle (and not so subtle) foreshadowing and commentary on the very inhumanity of mankind which is as on the money today as it was in 1958.
The play takes place primarily in the lush garden of a home in the upscale Garden District of New Orleans.  Mrs. Violet Venable (Marjory Lewis), a formidable woman with considerable wealth, has invited Dr. Cukrowicz (Cody Frank) to her home.  It is there, in that jungle-like garden, that she speaks at great length to him about Sebastian, her beloved son and designer of said garden. He died under somewhat vague circumstances last summer while staying in Cabeza de Lobo with his cousin Catherine Holly (Cat Lyn Day).  Mrs. Venable goes on to tell the doctor that the shock of Sebastian’s death has clearly driven poor Catherine mad.  She will tell anyone who will listen horrible lies about Sebastian and is denigrating the family name as she drags the memory of Sebastian through the mud.   So that is why Mrs. Venable had Catherine sent to a mental institution and why she is asking the doctor to perform a lobotomy on Catherine; to rid her once and for all of these horrible nightmares and stop the terrible lies she continues to tell about her son.  To further induce the doctor to agree, Mrs. Venable has made it clear that a large donation towards his research will be forthcoming if he agrees to perform the procedure, after meeting with Catherine of course.
Catherine arrives with Sister Felicity (Alden West) from the institution assigned to keep an eye on the patient most believe to be quite deranged.  The pressure on Catherine to recant her story continues to grow when her mother (Lorraine Williamson) and her brother George (Winston Gieseke) also arrive with promises of lots of money if she’ll only say it was a lie.  But Catherine remains steadfast in her insistence that her story is no lie.  In order to hear it for himself, the doctor gives her a truth serum and soon Catherine is reliving the events of Sebastian’s last day on earth and the gruesome and horrific manner of his death.
Throughout the play, Williams underscores, among several themes, how everyone uses others to obtain their desires.  Sebastian uses first his mother than his cousin to lure men into his bed.  Mrs. Venable is trying to use the doctor to silence Catherine before she causes Violet any more embarrassment regardless of where the truth may lie.  The doctor similarly may be using Mrs. Venable to get his hands on the cash his research so desperately needs in order to continue.  Catherine’s mother and brother not just use but rely on Mrs. Venable’s money and have no qualms about manipulating Catherine to ensure the cash keeps flowing.  It is a vicious circle of life where the ends justify the means. 
The set, designed by Allan Jensen complimented by the always reliable Phil Murphy’s lighting design conveys the steamy atmosphere of Sebastian’s elaborately lush garden. The costumes are, where appropriate, those of the rich in 1936, the year in which the play takes place.  They also nicely show the divergence between the clothing of days somewhat past worn by Mrs. Venable and the more contemporary chic suit worn by Catherine.  The sound design by Miguel Arballo nimbly creeps in and out of the play without ever being jarring or intrusive. 
In a play such as this, it is easy for an actor to slip into an overly dramatic style of emoting more in keeping with a melodrama.  Under the direction of Jim Strait, the cast does its best to avoid crossing that line but once in a while both Ms. Lewis and Ms. Day take a step too far in that direction before pulling it back.  The drawl of the Southern accent for several members of the cast also has a tendency to fade in and out   But these are minor distractions to the enjoyment of the play itself. SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER is filled with the lyric poetry and populated by characters at least partly derived from the playwright’s own life; both signatures of many of Williams’ successful earlier works.  It is also filled with mythic references and is, according to Williams, not to be taken literally; a style found in many of his later unsuccessful works. 
Take advantage of The Desert Rose Playhouse’s decision to stage SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER and see this not frequently produced play which stands at the crossroads of Williams’ rollercoaster career.